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As the classic business example goes, railroads lost their prime position because they confused running a railroad with moving goods and people. If they had defined their existence by meeting the task (transportation) rather than by their familiar paradigm for accomplishing it (railroads), who knows how those companies might look today? Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Airways, anyone?

The publishing industry is in the midst of a similar crisis, especially book publishing. Recently, Clive Thompson published an interesting piece in Wired entitled, “The Future of Reading.” In it, he cites examples showing how books can break loose of their traditional moorings and become interactive experiences. Reading can move from a bound, printed format into an exchange of ideas around a narrative backbone, something more discursive and dynamic than static printed words.

Joe Wikert has also recently wondered aloud, “When Will We Evolve Past Books?” He puts forth the very salient point that “Freakonomics” could have been a 40-page e-book and sold quite well. In fact, it could have been (still could be?) a series of smaller monographs, selling for much more in aggregate than the single book we currently know.

Despite changes in technology (including Google’s recent moves in this space), we have a distance to go. I’ve recently read many exchanges on blogs that show me how deeply invested authors are in having a finished good, a printed and bound book to hold and covet. My own experience with my novel in printed form is that there is a pleasant finality with a completed, bound (and bounded) print book. You can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s done and truly exists.

But perhaps Joe and Clive and others are missing the bigger picture. We are already beyond the book, with Facebook, blogs, Twitter, audio, and video providing outlets for short-form expression, serialized creativity, and commercial craft. Perhaps the book is already just one option of many. Maybe you, reading this, are already part of the future of reading.

So the question is, Will publishers be a part of this? Or will they railroad themselves into a smaller role in the future of reading?

(Note: There’s an interesting related article in the “The Nation” entitled, “The Long Goodbye.” Thanks to the Radical Patron for the pointer.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


3 Thoughts on "Publishers and the Future of Reading"

I read the Thompson article yesterday, in print no less! I think there are some good ideas in there, but they’re mixed in with a lot of impractical wishful thinking. One can spend a huge amount of money building an online environment around a book or a journal, but that does not mean a community will be created. Our particular audience, research scientists, seem particularly uninterested in chatting online with one another about books or journal articles, despite vast sums being spent to build things like the Nature Network. I do think it’s valuable to explore new ways of bringing information to the public, but it’s also quite possibly a way to invest a lot of cash with little return.

Thompson bases the whole thing on the idea that a few sci-fi authors are selling more books because they’re taking advantage of the novelty of having some free material online. As I wrote last week, this is a short-term, limited phenomenon. If everything is free, then the novelty wears off and it no longer gets the extra attention.

Wikert’s column was right on the money though. I’ve stopped buying books about the internet, about the future of publishing and about social media because every one that I’ve purchased turns out to be a couple of blog entries stretched out to 250 pages. You read the first 25 pages or so and you know everything the book is going to tell you.

I would suggest that it isn’t a question of Wikert’s “evolving beyond books” or Anderson’s “releasing of content”. Now that there are a variety of vehicles or vessels from which one can take content, the key is to determine which option works best for which community and/or discipline. It’s not a one-size fits all. The book isn’t dead and blogs haven’t necessarily replaced anything. In some instances, for some types of discussions, it might be that a blog is a better idea for the business community than a overly-padded print volume. For some purposes, as in history, I will want a full-length monograph.

Half of the problem in the publishing industry currently (IMHO) is that everyone is speaking as if it must be an all-or-nothing game. The situation is much more difficult and much more exciting than that. Each society, each discipline, each community will have to figure out what works best for any given task or professional workflow. That’s publisher creativity and subsequent value-add may emerge.

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